“Moonage Daydream:” Keep Your Electric Eye On Me
Issue 3, Volume 113
You’re in London at the Hammersmith Odeon on July 3, 1973, sitting in a dark stadium buzzing with anticipation. Fans are seated restlessly, donning outfits, makeup, and hair that resemble their idol. They’re all waiting for him to appear. Suddenly, the darkness is pierced by a dim light that splashes onto the stage. A roar floods the stadium. Dressed in a glittery pair of pants and a sheer black top, Ziggy Stardust emerges, the man who fell to earth, the alien rock star. The sights and sounds of David Bowie are hypnotizing, and Brett Morgen’s film “Moonage Daydream” captures that heart-thumping, extraordinary musical journey through the 20th century.
“Moonage Daydream” is less of a traditional documentary about the life and accolades of Bowie, and more of a quilt of overlapping visuals and audio that come together into an entrancing cinematic experience. Capturing the story of this remarkable person requires an intimate understanding of Bowie, going beyond his many personas, and immersing the audience in his creative vision.
In an interview with IndieWire, Morgen explains his inspiration and process of making the film: “I was hoping to create a theme park ride around my favorite musical artist, something that would be intimate and sublime and experiential. But the film became something much deeper and richer.” As Morgen painstakingly probed through old interviews, exclusive concert footage, and audio recordings, he stripped away the character “Bowie” to reveal the person underneath.
Bowie was one of the most influential singers, songwriters, and artists in the history of music. With his vivid lyrics, contemporary visions, and larger-than-life persona, Bowie pioneered our modern conception of a rockstar. He was a chameleon of an artist, defining the decades he lived through by constantly switching up his style and crafting captivating alter egos.
One of the highlights of Morgen’s documentary is interviews with Bowie superfans, pooling into the streets to see him. His fans were truly fascinated by him, even going to great lengths to mimic his iconic makeup and eccentric style.
Bowie’s immeasurable creativity transcended across other artistic mediums besides music, such as painting, sculpting, writing, acting, and fashion. He was the epitome of self-expression, bringing every ounce of his persona to the foreground. The documentary peppers in details of Bowie’s personal life through audio snippets of his monologues and live television interviews. There is no other voice featured in the film other than Bowie’s and occasionally that of a talk show host, giving the viewer an intimate connection with Bowie’s story.
In the aforementioned interviews, Bowie discusses the estranged relationship he had with his mother, and how they cut each other out of their lives. He also references his older half-brother Terry numerous times, describing the impact Terry had on him: he introduced Bowie to subjects from John Coltrane and contemporary poetry to Buddhism and spirituality prior to Terry’s untimely death. In voicing his early childhood trauma, we learn about Bowie’s private fear of insanity and inner struggle to fit in.
In contrast, the film also captures Bowie’s openness about his sexuality. He describes it less of a black-and-white construct and more of a fluid spectrum, which was unheard of at the time. Part of his intrigue came from his refusal to be defined by social norms. A clip from an interview featured in the documentary encapsulates the public’s reaction, showing an obnoxious host poking fun at Bowie’s outfit and asking him, “What kind of shoes are those? Men’s shoes? Women’s shoes? Or bisexual shoes?” to which he responds, “They’re shoe shoes, silly.”
Throughout his lengthy career, Bowie slowly revealed more of himself by shedding his disguises, including Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke. “Sometimes I don’t feel as if I’m a person at all. I’m just a collection of other people’s ideas,” he revealed in a 1972 interview. The documentary shows that even a man with seemingly unshakeable confidence and the world’s adoration still possessed the same vulnerabilities as the rest of us.
As anticipated, music was central to the documentary. With the fast-paced, upbeat “Hallo Spaceboy” (1995) in the intro, the dramatic ballad “Life On Mars” (1971), and concert recordings of hits from Bowie’s catalog, like “Let’s Dance” (1983) and “Heroes” (1977), Morgen utilizes tracks spanning Bowie’s extensive discography to recreate the atmosphere of pivotal moments in Bowie’s life. The David Bowie concert experience is captured beautifully: the otherworldly presence of Bowie in prime glamor, the pounding sounds of drums and guitar, and the deafening noise of passionate fans, all seen through the grainy footage of a 35mm lens.
However, the constant thrust of passion radiating throughout the documentary doesn’t give the viewer much time to process anything. Running at a lengthy two hours and 15 minutes long, it becomes a bit repetitive and almost nauseating. The rapid-fire montages of flashing images that were enjoyable in the first half of the documentary soon become dizzying. There is never a calm moment in “Moonage Daydream;” that’s what makes it so captivating yet exhausting to watch. The bombarding stream of creative consciousness exhausts expectations for a typical documentary, but after all, “Moonage Daydream” is no typical documentary.
Overall, the biopic brings a fresh perspective to a familiar individual. Bowie’s narration is as close as you can get to listening to him share his most intimate thoughts. In sifting through Bowie’s private vault of memorabilia and stitching them together, Morgen created something remarkable. Bowie shielded his personal life from his audience and created unique personas to hide behind, but through this first-hand narrative, we can get to know the man behind the icon.